Before my first-ever Muay Thai training session at Banchamek Gym in Bangkok—that's the gym that happens to be owned by Baukaw Banchamek, Thailand's most famous Muay Thai fighter, whose face you see plastered over billboards the moment you leave the airport, NBD—the extent of my experience with martial arts was dabbling in boxing-inspired group fitness classes in New York City.
I thought I had mastered the basics enough to handle a workout designed after one of Banchamek's own training sessions. I was sorely mistaken. (Keyword: sore.) It was one of my most grueling fitness experiences to date—but completely opened my world to a new way of challenging my mind *and* body at the same time.
In case you missed it, Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and has been practiced in the country for hundreds of years. The combat-style sport is known for being super intense and involves full-on hand- and leg-to-body contact. It also might soon become an Olympic sport, and celebs like Gina Rodriguez and Ryan Gosling are super into it. So naturally, I was intrigued.
Just like I had read, the workout was truly unlike anything I had ever tried before: Not only does it require use of your hands, elbows, feet, and knees, but, as with sparring in boxing, it's a mental workout that requires intense concentration to anticipate your partner's next move. And as I quickly learned, it's all about being centered and balanced so you can remain on two feet as your opponent throws kicks and hooks your way.
It also became quickly apparent during my two weeks spent in Muay Thai boxing gyms in Thailand that the sport goes way beyond a physical workout. Muay Thai is deeply embedded in the country's history and culture (which I witnessed firsthand at the 2017 World Wai Kru Muay Thai Ceremony) and respect for both your teacher and opponent is essential. When I asked Banchamek what makes Muay Thai unique compared to other martial arts, he told me (roughly translated from Thai): "It's a serious skill to learn, so once you do, other people will respect you because you'll be fearless and deadly." It doesn't get much more intense than that.
And although making the journey to Thailand to train is a rite of passage for anyone serious about Muay Thai, it's not just for the super-serious fighters anymore either. I learned that Muay Thai has recently become the go-to activity for most resorts as well. Nearly every hotel I stayed in offered lessons, catering to tourists who want to give the country's national sport a try in between lounging poolside.
"It's become more popular than any other workout here," says Anthony Lark, general manager at Trisara in Phuket, which, in addition to the typical fitness activities like yoga and tennis that you'd expect from a luxury resort with poolside villas, also began offering private Muay Thai lessons to meet the demand of their guests. (He notes it has also been a draw for celeb guests like Adam Levine.)
And despite the fact that Muay Thai is a traditionally male sport (female fighters weren't given the same opportunities as men until recently) it's increasingly catching on with women. When I look around Banchamek's gym, it's filled with pink shorts and boxing gloves. According to the trainers I spoke with there, the gym has been packed with women in the past year, and girls are getting into the sport younger and younger.
The same is true here in the U.S., says Brandon Levi, owner and head trainer at Evolution Muay Thai in New York City. Levi notes there's been "a massive uptick in how many women come in to try the classes out"—and that they're sticking around for major mind-body benefits.
Here, a few reasons why you might consider giving it a go if you're on the fence.
1. The workout is hard AF—and you'll reap major results.
Muay Thai's reputation as one of the most hardcore workouts out there is well-deserved. As previously mentioned, it's challenging as hell. However, while the reputation might scare some off, it's exactly what will draw in others, Levi says. "If you like to be challenged on a daily basis, Muay Thai could well be the sport for you," he says. And it's no coincidence that its growing popularity is due in large part to the incredible physical pay off, too. "Muay Thai uses almost every muscle in the body—and is a perfect blend of cardio, strength, and endurance training," Levi says. Simply put, if you want a stronger core (hello abs), more arm definition, more sculpted legs (there's a lot of kicking involved!), or are looking to burn fat, this is the workout for you.
2. You won't be bored.
Can't spend another minute on the elliptical or treadmill? Look no further. Women are finding Muay Thai to be the perfect replacement for their usual boring cardio workout, Levi says. And Muay Thai, in particular, offers something other similar-seeming workouts don't. "While cardio kickboxing classes might be all the rage right now, they generally focus more on the workout and less on the techniques, so there's less learning involved," Levi notes. "That can get a bit boring after a while, and when that boredom starts to set in, students are more likely to move on to an entirely different exercise program, like spin or CrossFit." With Muay Thai, it's basically impossible to have workout fatigue because you're always learning and improving your skills (while getting in an amazing cardio and total-body strengthening workout at the same time).
3. You can learn self-defense quickly.
Of course, many women are getting into Muay Thai to feel empowered when it comes to self-defense. Even if it's not your primary goal, it's certainly a bonus. "Muay Thai is second only to Brazilian jiujitsu for women's self-defense,” Levi says. And it's surprisingly approachable. "The techniques are simple, effective, and easy to learn. Within six months of beginning to study Muay Thai, the average person can reasonably expect to be able to defend themselves reasonably well in most situations," Levi says.
4. It's pretty badass.
Gina Rodriguez wasn't kidding with that whole "no pain, no Muay Thai" thing. Muay Thai students get lots of bruises, even without sparring, Levi notes. (I can attest—I walked away with many.) "Just holding pads is a workout in itself and can be a little painful at times, especially when you are working with somebody who hits hard," he says. While this can take some getting used to (especially if you aren't used to working out with that kind of intensity), "bruised forearms, bruised shins, and bruised thighs are all part of the process and students often wear these bruises like a badge of honor." They also serve an important purpose: "If you do something wrong and it hurts, you learn very quickly not to do it like that again." Bruises aside—it's a simply badass thing to tell people you do Muay Thai.
5. It's a major stress-reliever.
It should come as no surprise that Muay Thai is a great way to relieve any pent-up stress. Based on my scientific calculations, it's literally impossible to walk away still mad about anything after an hour spent kicking and punching your cares away on the mat. (It helped that I was in Thailand, thousands of miles away from my worries back home—but still!) But it may come as a slight surprise that a sport that is objectively pretty rough and violent to watch can bring so much peace and positivity to those who practice it—something Levi says happens with pretty much everyone who gives the sport a try.
6. You'll reap a major workout high.
Realizing you can lift heavier, run farther, or—fill in the blank any other fitness milestone—is majorly rewarding. That effect is only multiplied with trying something completely outside of your comfort zone like Muay Thai. Sure you might feel a bit silly the first few days while you get the hang of it Levi says (note: I never felt sillier), but it's incredibly rewarding to put in the work and notice dramatic improvements in your physical fitness and technical abilities, Levi says.